Reducing Toxic Air Behind Schedule at EPA, Americans at Risk

Report from agency's Inspector General exposes unlawful delay

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has fallen far behind in one of its most important responsibilities: to protect the American public from toxic air pollutants. The New York Times recently reported on a new study from the agency’s Inspector General which found that the EPA is currently violating federal law by failing to put these protections in place. Because of the EPA’s failures to set vital clean air standards, millions of Americans still face appallingly high risks of cancer, birth defects and other devastating illness—all because of exposure to toxic air pollution that can and should be controlled.

This grim news does not result from an oversight or an accident. As the EPA recognized in its response to the report, the Bush administration intentionally cut the agency’s budget for controlling toxic air emissions by 70 percent. Time was spent instead on reducing protections: a federal court observed in 2006 that the EPA under Bush was "devot[ing] substantial resources to discretionary rulemakings, many of which make existing regulations more congenial to industry, and several of which since have been found unlawful."

It is hardly surprising that when the Bush administration cut the budget for reducing toxic air emissions by more than half, the staff could not do their job. As a result, health protections that Congress required the EPA to issue years ago have never been put in place, the toxic pollution continues unabated, and people go on suffering unnecessarily. One key statistic on that suffering: the Inspector General reports that "1 in every 28,000 people could develop cancer from air toxics exposure."

Fortunately, the current leadership at the EPA is turning the ship around. In response to the Inspector General report, the agency offers some hope: "[We] agree that much remains to be done to ensure healthy, clean air for all Americans, particularly those living in urban areas where emission sources can be more concentrated and those living in communities near facilities emitting [hazardous air pollutants]." And the agency is not offering just words; it already has rescinded some of the more egregious loopholes on which the Bush administration misspent the taxpayers’ resources, and it has taken new steps to control some of the worst toxic polluters, such as cement kilns and medical waste incinerators.

The EPA has several upcoming opportunities to demonstrate its commitment to cutting toxic air pollution. It will reconsider a dangerous loophole, declared illegal by a federal court, that allowed major industrial polluters to violate emission standards with impunity by claiming that their equipment "malfunctioned." Toxic air pollution during these events could increase to as much as ten times allowable levels.

The agency will also continue its work to control emissions from power plants, the largest unregulated industrial source of toxic air pollution in the United States. After more than a decade of delay, a coalition of environmental groups secured an agreement from the EPA last year to issue strict new rules by November 2011. Following through on this undertaking in the face of mounting utility and coal industry opposition is a key test of the agency’s renewed focus on protecting Americans from toxic air.

And the EPA will issue final rules later this summer to control toxic air pollution from cement kilns. The agency must maintain its commitment to strong reductions, which will prevent thousands of premature deaths every year and clean up 16,000 pounds of mercury annually from these polluters, a decrease of nearly 93 percent.

But these measures alone are not enough. Controlling toxic air emissions is at the core of the EPA’s mission, and it needs to be funded fully. The Bush administration’s scheme to hold up pollution control efforts by starving them of funds needs to be reversed now. As the Inspector General’s report makes clear, the EPA is still far behind on meeting its statutory obligations and still lacks the basic data it needs to assess and control the health hazards that toxic air emissions present.

As long as toxic air looms over communities nationwide, the EPA will have a responsibility to protect people from it. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has stated that air quality and environmental justice are chief concerns for progress during her time at the EPA. To make this progress a reality for communities nationwide, we encourage her to do whatever is necessary to rectify the agency’s past mistakes and build a robust program to clean up toxic air. Americans cannot afford to wait another decade or more for the EPA to fully control toxic air pollution and enact the basic health protections that Congress intended to take effect years ago.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”